EMERGING PHOTOGRAPHERS

True Grit

By Kris Wilton


Boatwright photographed Juliette and the Licks for Nylon in 2008.

© ANGELA BOATWRIGHT
Boatwright photographed Juliette and the Licks for Nylon in 2008.


At age 12, Angela Boatwright began documenting the world of hardcore musicians. Now, 23 years later, the successful advertising and editorial photographer is working hard to bring their raw stories to the big screen.

Some people’s parents give them a dog to keep them company when they’re growing up. Angela Boatwright’s mom gave her a camera. The elder Boatwright, an avid photographer who had a darkroom in the family’s home in Columbus, Ohio, presented the 12-year-old with a manual SLR camera, and soon Angela was photographing her skateboarder friends and bands and printing her black-and-white images in her mom’s darkroom. Photography, she says now, helped her “survive” her Ohio adolescence.

“I just got super, super into it,” says the hyperkinetic Boatwright, adding, “I’ve been trained like a Chinese gymnast, in a way—I’ve been on a straight path to being a photographer since I was 12 years old, with literally no breaks.”

Boatwright, now 35 and living in New York City, published her first photograph at 15, when she sent the band Prong an image she’d shot at a nearby club and they paid her $40 to run it in their fanzine. In the two decades since, she has amassed a client list boasting American Express, Rock Band and Urban Outfitters, for whom she’s shot 15 catalogs, as well as the magazines Nylon, Spin, Vibe, Vice, XXL and New York. She did a stint as creative director for the now-defunct magazine Mass Appeal, founded her own photo agency, Killer of Giants, and has shot personalities ranging from Ellen Page to Nikki Sixx, Jay-Z and Janelle Monáe.

But in keeping with her super-driven personality, Boatwright is not content to coast for a while. She’s feverishly pursuing her most ambitious project yet: a feature-length documentary that she is funding herself (her next step is to seek investors). Her subject is underground American heavy-metal bands who tour nine or 10 months a year to support themselves (which is why they’re also known as “road dogs”). “[It’s] a story I’ve been wanting to tell since I was a teenager,” Boatwright says. “It’s kind of the apex of my career.”

Arriving for a photo shoot, Boatwright—a petite, tattooed heavy-metal devotee who describes first seeing KISS on TV as a kid as a “spiritual” experience—looks poised to slamdance at an all-ages show rather than to run a shoot. But Rebecca Fain, who’s worked with the photographer since 2002, first assigning her work at Vibe and then at Revolver and XXL, says she’s a commanding presence behind the camera.

“She doesn’t ever falter,” says Fain, now photo director at XXL and Juicy. “She knows what she wants, and she can be really aggressive about getting that moment, which I find can be very helpful with certain artists.”

Boatwright’s commercial work is notable for its easy hipness, familiarity and youthful sense of infinite possibility. A viewer might wish herself part of the often languid scenes, though not without wondering if she’s cool enough to fit in. The photographer attributes the intimacy of her portraits to her empathy for “struggle, sadness, being excited about success and the day-to-day things you go through as a human being.” Erik Ellington, an oft-photographed pro skateboarder she’s shot several times, says working with her is like working with a friend, and that comfort level comes through in the images.

Her film, which she has not yet titled, also will feature people she’s been documenting for years—bands like Municipal Waste, Toxic Holocaust, Holy Grail, Black Tusk and Skeletonwitch, with whom she toured in 2008. The movie was born of an epiphany Boatwright had earlier this year, when, on a trip back home, she went to a heavy-metal festival and ended up at a secret show a couple of the bands played after hours. “I’m watching the bands just go nuts on stage, doing what they love to do, for an audience a tenth of the size of the festival,” she recalls, “and I thought, Man, people have to see this.

“There are people out there with the attitude,” she continues, “that, ‘I want to be a successful musician,’ and to them, that means making money or being on MTV or the radio, or whatever the standards are now. But these guys are like, ‘No, I want to go out and do what I do, and if I don’t end up making tons of money, it’s my life.’ It’s really in the face of the rules.”

You can tell that Boatwright relates to this way of thinking. She describes herself as more interested in photography and people than in the marketing and positioning required in the industry, and even as she worked to establish her career, she has continued to document the daily lives and antics of her friends in the metal, skating and other alternative communities. She posts the images on her website (angelaboatwright.com) and at her blog, and this work is frequently included in curated group shows and in books, like last year’s Juxtapoz Photo.

“There was a time when I wanted to be ‘a successful photographer,’” she says, and earn a lot of money like her peers. “But it’s becoming apparent to me that I might not be the kind of photographer who just wants to be successful for its own sake. I have something that I want to express.”

Boatwright can’t say when her film will be finished—or if it ever will—but she believes that whatever happens, it will change her. It’s a chance not only to bring her personal vision to the wider audience she’s cultivated professionally, but also to explore, through the struggles of the bands she’s followed for years now, her own professional struggles. To her, the challenges are strikingly similar. “Guitars will break, or they’ll lose a pedal, and they have to figure it out at the last minute, right before they play,” she says. “On photo shoots, you show up, and the shoot ends up being different from what you think, and you have to rent some new equipment, and sometimes you don’t know how to use that equipment, but you figure it out on set, and you make it happen.”

She adds, “The broader story of struggle—and I really believe this—is in the end, the people who succeed are the people who just keep trying.”

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